Tag Archives: reading

Scriptures, the Tarot, and other universal archetypes

I’ve recently been reading a lot about (and collecting) Tarot decks in conjunction with a project that I’ve been working on. The Tarot deck has always fascinated me, even since my childhood, not because I believed that such cards held some kind of mystical clairvoyant power, but mostly because of the archetypes the Major Arcana represented. Concepts such as Judgment, The World, Temperance, The Sun, The Moon, The Emperor, The Fool — they all felt like symbolic poetry, a world of ideas and feelings and connotations packed into a single card with a single image.

In retrospect, my fascination with  Tarot cards most likely stemmed from my strict religious upbringing, especially one such as Mormonism which is still obsessed with the idea of symbolism. We continue to, like many other religions, employ symbolism within our worship, and also within the way we speak about and act out our faith. How could I, a kid raised to automatically ferret out symbolism and derive great joy and satisfaction from decompressing it, resist the rich symbolism of the Tarot?

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

While learning about the symbolism of the Tarot, it was inevitable that I learned a little in how to use them in the traditional sense of fortune telling. So when some friends came over, I offered to do some Tarot readings as a sort of parlor trick. They agreed and said it sounded like fun. I proceeded to lay out spreads for each of my friends. Some of them mirrored their life situations perfectly while others, predictably, did not. All in all, however, I was very surprised to see how invested people get into Tarot readings; they automatically seek out to relate their life to the cards, or extrapolate meanings in the symbolism to apply to their own life.

One friend, who recently got out of a bad relationship, took the Tarot spread’s interpretation to mean that he needed to stop dwelling on the past and look forward with an attitude of healing. My wife, whose spread told her that her life had recently seen massive changes (like a baby perhaps), interpreted it to mean that she needed to look at her situation at different angles rather than trying to fix problems by just trying harder. My spread told me that I needed to be more careful with how I spent my money, and that perhaps my life is not in accordance with the values of modesty and temperance.

We all sat back afterwards, somewhat surprised but satisfied by our readings. As I contemplated this later that night, it struck me at how optimistic and even — dare I say it? — helpful these readings were. I’ll admit that lately, I’ve been a lot more wary about where my money goes. My wife has been a lot more diligent and creative in her approaches to personal problems recently. And our friend who had just left a bad relationship felt almost a sense of relief and a much more positive outlook for the future. None of these things are really bad.

In fact, this is a lot like reading the scriptures.

Now, before every Mormon decides to crucify me for daring to compare the occult like the Tarot with the scriptures, let me explain.

Scriptures are mostly story. They are intensely human stories rich with symbolism and meaning. We often must sit back and work to decompress the sheer amount of knowledge, information, and advice within them. And most importantly, like a good Tarot reading, we extrapolate those symbols and appropriate them for our own, working hard to match them with what is happening in our personal lives. I could read the conversion story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon and derive a completely different interpretation than my father would, and we would most definitely apply them differently in our lives. But when Mormon sat down to write the abridged account of Alma the  Younger, he could not have had all of these things in mind. Yes, the Book of Mormon is for our day thematically, but that’s exactly why it’s so successful as a piece of religious literature — the themes are broad, universal, and archetypal. They are applicable to every situation and station in life.

Like Tarot readings, the person giving the reading does not have to work hard. In a Sunday School class, one simply has to read the story out loud and people will immediately begin to draw connections to their own lives. And often, these lessons are beneficial. The Alma the Younger conversion story tells parents to be patient and trust God. It warns against the personal sorrows and pains of sin, but it also extols the virtues of forgiveness and love. It’s a treatise on the fallen nature of man and the dependency one must develop on God’s grace. It talks about the hurt errant children can inflict on parents. It talks about social consequences in not only ignoring family and religious traditions and customs, but also in actively rebelling and fighting against it. This is not even a comprehensive list of what this simple story can teach.

In fact, both scriptures and Tarot rarely communicate anything new in our lives. Instead, they work with the material that we do have, roiling beneath our conscious thought, and give it some kind of metaphysical form. It allows us to access feelings deep within us, some joyful, others uneasy, and bring them up to the surface to face and examine. Deep down, I knew that I should be more careful with my money, but “finding it in the cards” gave me a little bit more of a kick out the door to actually do it. My wife knew that trying the same old things to solve her perennial problems wouldn’t work; the Tarot interpretation that she created for herself helped her to finally face up to it and act out on it. And my friend, reeling from a personal loss and trying to patch up the wounds he sustained from it, found the reading helpful in fighting back the personal insecurity that can sometimes haze over a good, if not difficult, decision.

Now, I know that there is no actual, real power in the Tarot. I know that the deck has been around forever but it was only in the 19th century when people began creating mystical interpretations of what was once an absurdly complicated card game (like Bridge) to build a way to tell fortunes with it out of whole cloth. I know very keenly the somewhat dubious history of the Tarot, and especially how this Tarot undermines the idea that there can be no good that comes from it. However, the Tarot’s power, I believe, is not because it has some kind of inherent occult-devil power, or because there is power infused within the cards, but because they happen to depict universal themes that speak to everyone in some way. The cards do not tell the future; we tell the future for ourselves, using the symbols provided by the Tarot as prompts.

What is interesting to note about the power of scripture is that they, too, do not have to be “factually true” to have such power. I don’t want to re-open a whole “Is the Book of Mormon historical or not?” debate. In fact, my main point is that such a debate is counter-productive. The mythological figure Mormon (and he is more mythological than historical in our religion), despite his historian status and profession, did not compile the Book of Mormon to provide factual dates and statistics and observations for any kind of academic reason. Rather, he compiled his civilization’s mythos, from its mythical founding father Nephi, to various characters with superhuman abilities. How is Ammon the arm-slayer any different from the heroes of old? Mormon understood that encoded within the genetic material of these myths were powerful human emotions and archetypes that could motivate us to realize what we already know what we must do but were too afraid to face.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret a mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.” When we argue about whether or not the scriptures are historical, and when we get offended when people point out that there’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity, we shouldn’t bat an eye. Because historicity only matters if you’ve based your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ on carbon dating and archaeological digs. We derive religious meaning, significance, and utility from accessing instead what Carl Jung called the collective imagination and consciousness of humanity. True efficacy of the scriptures comes not from whether or not it actually happened in the past, but whether or not these stories continue to play out in our everyday lives.



Filed under fokltale, life stories, religion, wordsmithing

Making learning language interesting

My first semester at BYU, I took a Biblical Hebrew class. It was a lot of fun; I distinctly remember how in the middle of our first major translation assignment of the semester, I realized that the piece was actually Genesis chapter one. A sort of thrill ran up my spine. My Hebrew skills were rudimentary, at best, and I was only a beginner, but the fact that I had translated something substantial made me proud.

In a similar vein, one of my favorite primers for learning English as a child tackled some pretty intense subjects for an 8 year old. I remember learning about amphibians and the Doppler Effect and magnetism. I would daresay that primers like this kindled the flame that would consume me when it comes to learning and reading. I read voraciously, my English skills improved, and I learned a lot of really interesting stuff along the way. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Unfortuantely, it was a change from my Spanish classes in high school. Most of the sentences translated felt worthless or downright silly. Usually, it fell into the variation of “Juan needs this” or “Maria needs that” or “the teacher likes this” or “the student went to the store.” They lacked oomph, a certain type of panache like the sentences I translated in Biblical Hebrew: “The people rejected God and were destroyed.”

In the position of volunteer teaching ESL, I’ve brought up the prospect of reading out loud to help improve accent, vocabulary, and grammar comprehension and the class seems very interested in the idea. Which leads me to this question: What do I have them read? My friend David at Catchy Title Goes Here writes extensively about education (like textbooks, for example), and as a writer he has contemplated writing his own texts for students learning German to read. Specifically, he planned on teaching through these texts not only the basics of the German language but also the basics of German culture.

We learn language primarily to communicate, whether they be stories or information. But when we begin to learn another language, often the information we practice with holds little pertinence to learning. Yes, it’s important to learn how to ask where the store is or how old someone is. But couldn’t we coach them in more interesting terms, such as how the concept of the supermarket translated to Hispanic culture or the role of age in Spanish social culture? Sometimes, I wonder if my Spanish class had us translating something more interesting, my diligence in high school courses might not have flagged so much near the end.

Currently, I am in the process of re-writing entries from The Intellectual Devotional (you should check it out; it’s great fun) into a simpler format. English doesn’t have to be reading out loud boring sentences about watching how Spot runs – hopefully, my students will enjoy reading about the theory of relativity and Baroque music instead.


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Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card



Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books from the library. I love it; I’ve sold most of the books that I don’t read/haven’t read that I’ve purchased, and with the library card, I now have access to thousands of books which I can read at my own leisure. Surprisingly, I’ve been reading a lot more than when I’ve been buying books. I have a theory that the library puts a huge risk on not reading (you have to return it soon), but at the same time dampens the risk of not reading (you got it for free anyway). This makes reading a lot more fun and relaxed, as opposed to shamefully averting my gaze every time I make eye contact with the stack of books I purchased six months ago but haven’t cracked open yet. Oh, the shame!

The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer:

I was really apprehensive when I picked this up. It sounded interesting, but I’m not a fan of speculative archaeology/anthropology. Too often these kinds of books devolve into a 2012 apocalyptic New Age kind of thing and I hate those. But it sounded interesting enough and connected not only my love of learning more about Christianity, my faith, but also my love of learning more about my Asian heritage. Win-win!

This book certainly was a win. Martin Palmer has done his research. He details the discovery of a highly advanced Christian church established long before most people thought Christianity even reached China through Catholic missions. The texts revealed a mission keenly aware of the different traditions they found themselves in and their attempt to reconcile common Eastern beliefs within a Christian context. It’s a wonderful example of how flexible Christianity can be as a religion and some fascinating history as well. Along with the actual text of the Jesus Sutras, Palmer explains carefully the background of the Christian texts discovered within China. He describes the different schisms within Christianity in its early years, the turbulent history of Taoism, Confucianism, shamanism, and Buddhism within Chinese history, and the possible explanations for various fusions of the two vastly different traditions. The texts themselves are interesting to read, especially as it describes basic Christian doctrines with a very Eastern tone, detailing things such as the resurrection/reincarnation tension, as well as how Christ might work within the context and knowledge of the Tao. In the end, I found whole new branches I was previously unfamiliar with (the Thomarist church in India and the Nestorian churches of the East, for example) which I now have a newfound zeal in learning more about. Overall, the book was highly enjoyable, and despite selling most of my books and trying to pare down my actual physical library, this book I might go out and purchase, since it has high re-readability.

Ecofaith: Creating & Sustaining Green Congregations by Charlene A. Hosenfeld:

This book was kind of a hit and miss. The bulk of the book involves an extensive list of different ecological projects your church can engage in, from the really cool (have a community garden and compost bin on the church grounds) to the somewhat ridiculous (have the congregation sign an “eco-pledge”) to the downright insensitive (during a baby blessing or baptism, try to work in an environmental message). A large part of the usefulness lies in the appendix, where Hosenfeld, a psychologist, details some of the psychology behind mobilizing a group of people towards a common goal, and why people don’t do ecologically friendly activities even though they deeply care about the environment and the health of their families. The appendix also details strong theological reasons for Christian involvement within the environmental movement. All in all, an interesting book, but I found the bibliography a far more fascinating aspect of the book and a great stepping stone for finding interesting things to read about this subject.

Zen in 10 Simple Lessons by Anthony Man-Tu Lee:

I thought this book would be a very superficial skim over the basic principles of Zen. I’m already familiar with most of the basic precepts; one of my favorite teachers in high school was a practicing Zen Buddhist, and he taught my comparative religion class. We had many interesting conversations about the topic and I learned much from him (I almost ran away from home and joined a Buddhist monastery, so enraptured was I with their philosophy. Ultimately, I decided against it, but sometimes, I wonder).

This book actually goes in depth and covers many Zen concepts at length. I was definitely pleasantly surprised; a lot of the principles I studied in this book now govern some of the zazen techniques my wife and I have been practicing the past couple of days. It goes into the basics of zazen and meditation, the source of suffering, how to achieve satori, koans, and how Zen mixes with daily life. It also devotes a chapter to Zen aesthetics, debunking a lot of myths perpetuated by Western minimalists about what “Zen design” is supposed to be. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating philosophy, I highly suggest this book as an excellent primer.

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The Decline and Fall of the Lee Library

A couple of weeks ago I had blogged heavily about the books that I planned on bringing with me to Seattle. Because of space limitations and the last minute nature of the move, I couldn’t bring that many books and so I suddenly had to make the choice of which select titles I could carry with me out of the hundreds of books my wife and I managed to collect over the years. This caused no small measure of pain and consternation for me, but, eventually, I felt I had compiled a list that would satisfy me.

But literally the day before the move, I stared at what I would soon pack up and what I had set aside, and I completely changed my list. Aside from my scriptures, Bodies, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore and Jewish Dharma (you can probably detect a pattern by now), nothing else made the cut to come with me. I quickly shuffled the books around and ended up with a drastically new list.

Two insights on the list – all of them require some form of proactive learning. My greatest strength and curse is my inability to stay focused on one subject for too long. Because of this, I’ve developed a great breadth of knowledge which my wife both loves and rolls her eyes at. I always enjoy learning, and this leads me to my second insight. None of them could be classified as fiction. None of them. Well, one of them, depending on your political persuasion. Fiction rarely captivates me (blasphemy to my friends and wife); because of my personality, I love the world I live in with all of its quirks and inconsistencies, and why explore made up worlds when the world we live in already exudes such fantastic qualities?

Without further ado:

The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class edited by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

This book exemplifies my core personality. A devotional to strengthen your intellectualism rather than your collection of religious platitudes, the book divides each day into a category of study: History, Literature, Visual Arts, Science, Music, Philosophy, and Religion (it’s not completely godless). Each day reviews a basic subject from that area, ranging from “Personality of Self” to “The Spread of Islam” to “Sound Waves.”

When I first saw this book at the bookstore, I immediately turned to my wife and emphatically told her that this gift would make a perfect birthday gift. I’m pleased to say that she remembered. And while the consistency of both my scripture study and my study from this devotional book varies with the seasons, I have never regretted this book.


The real numbers are the numbers that you are likely to encounter in day-to-day life. The set of real numbers consists of all the numbers that can be represented on the number line. It encompasses natural numbers, whole numbers, integers, rational numbers, and irrational numbers.

Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living by Graham Hill and Meaghan O’Neill

This book is the only one I brought that could qualify as fiction, considering your political persuasion when it comes to environmentalism. Moving to Seattle, I figured I should reacquaint myself with the environmental movement, but I also believe passionately in environmental conservation and prudent, simple living. This book works as a great primer, introducing each week with a new area of life that could use a little greenifying. After explaining the basics behind the theory, they then introduce a number of ideas which they categorize according to how time consuming and expensive they are. They also interview authors who’ve written on interesting subjects, such as up-cycling. Plus, the book is printed with recycled paper. Can’t go wrong there.


There are more than eighty thousand chemical compounds approved for use by the EPA in the United States. Of these, only about a fraction have publicly available reports of evaluations for human safety. Only about 20 percent of the eighty thousand are in commercial use at any time, and federal regulations and liability issues mean that almost all new chemicals have some degree of testing or structural analysis for impacts on human health and the environment. However, these reports are interpreted by companies with financial interests in selling the chemicals and are not required for review by independent bodies. Still fewer tests have been done on how combinations of chemicals affect us, which is how we are typically exposed.

Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated with the Jewish religion and culture. Many days I wish that I was born Jewish. There’s something about the combination of ritual, scripture, and custom that unites a people together. And with age comes wisdom; Judaism is one of the oldest religions still practiced today. My wife and I have always wanted to live an entire year following the Jewish customs. When someone recommended this book, we bought it and now wait eagerly for the next Yom Kippur to start our Jewish year. This book focuses more on a liberal Jewish interpretation, which at first disappointed me. But after thinking about it, I don’t know if I could last a year as a Hassidic Jew. This fact makes me sad and relieved.


For liberal Jews, not all mitzvot have the same weight because not all mitzvot provoke the sense of feeling commanded. As one rabbi has written, ‘There will be mitzvot through which my forebears found themselves capable of responding to the commanding God which are no longer adequate or possible for me, just as there will be new mitzvot through which I or my generation will be able to respond which my ancestors never thought of.’ Indeed, for liberal Jews, the increasingly complex modern world may suggest new and binding mitzvot regarding everything from the proper application of medical technology for the terminally ill to the ecological imperative to recycle.

Latin Made Simple by Doug Julius

While looking at requirements to apply for masters programs in theology, I noticed that many of them required the knowledge of either French or German, and Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Because of this, I purchased this Latin book – I figured I could learn Latin and then knock French out in the process. I still want to learn German, Greek, and Hebrew, but all in good time.

I’m still working on the 1st declension, but I’m almost done and ready to start on the 2nd declension. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.


Practice reading this passage aloud, following the English sound guide, until you can read it clearly and without hesitation. Remember that in Latin every consonant and vowel is pronounced.

Pater noster qui es in caelis sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et nos ne induas in tentationem sed libera nos a malo. Amen.


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My Favorite Children, part two

The continuation in a series of posts listing some of the books that made the rigorous process in determining which I take with me and the others that must wait in Utah until my wife and I come back for them.

6. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon’s famous book is A Curious Incident with the Dog in the Night-time, which got a lot of press for its unique narrator – a boy with autism. However, my favorite novel by Mark Haddon is A Spot of Bother, detailing a traditional, conservative British family whose only daughter is marrying someone everyone in the family hates. Meanwhile, the son must determine whether he should bring his boyfriend (and scandalize the entire family, especially his parents, still in semi-denial) or not, the mother tries to mop up an affair, and the father slowly begins to go a little bit crazy, convinced he will die soon of horrible disease – but hopes he can hide it from everyone and contain it until after the wedding so that he doesn’t inconvenience anyone. It’s a great book on family and acceptance, but like Then We Came to the End, it’s got some graphic scenes and some good old fashioned Brit cussing, so if you’re easily offended, pass this one, too.


He didn’t have a problem with homosexuality per se. Men having sex with men. One could imagine, if one was in the business of imagining such things, that there were situations where it might happen, situations in which chaps were denied the normal outlets. Military camps. Long sea voyages. One didn’t want to dwell on the plumbing but one could almost see it as a sporting activity. Letting off steam. High spirits. Handshake and a hot shower afterward.

It was the thought of men purchasing furniture together that disturbed him. Men snuggling. More disconcerting, somehow, than shenanigans in public toilets. It gave him the unpleasant feeling that there was a weakness in the very fabric of the world. Like seeing a man hit a woman in the street. Or suddenly not being able to remember the bedroom you had as a child.

Still, things changed. Mobile phones. Thai restaurants. You had to remain elastic or you turned into an angry fossil railing at litter.

7. A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise edited by Bonnie Tsui

A collection of essays about nature written by writers no older than thirty, this collection puts a new spin on “nature writing,” where young writers products of the late 20th to early 21st century write about their ways of connecting with whatever nature remains around them. The title derives from a delightful essay of a  young man who, broken hearted, decides to move into a tent like Thoreau to Walden to remove himself from his worldly woes and learns a little about himself. Another essay speaks about learning the lesson of growing up from a group of river rafting guides who refuse to do just that. Another author writes of her intense fear of lightning and her conflicting desire to venture around the world. Each essay is more than delightful and makes nature much more accessible again to one who’s grown up in the city all his life.


But more surprisingly, once I could hold my despair and run a hand along its saggy, tired edges, the woe didn’t seem so boundless. The tent gradually became not a symbol of doom, but a very real refuge, my own pod of stability and control in a world that felt beyond control. Wind and rain could lash the tent and I would stay warm and cozy – as long as I held the walls up and stayed in the middle and had a towel to mop up the mess. So many years later, things really haven’t changed.

8. Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson

I first heard about this book from my friend Kimberly, who majored in communication studies. This iconoclastic book defies what conventional wisdom teaches us – that popular culture makes us really, really dumb. Popular culture won’t get you to Harvard, Steven Johnson writes, but it is making the general population smarter overall. If you want to learn how video games and even reality TV shows are helping us become a more smarter generation, I highly recommend this book.


To get around these prejudices [against games], try this thought experiment. Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries – and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they’re all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying – which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements – books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

9. The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In by Paisley Rekdal

Born of a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father, Paisley Rekdal writes painfully honest essays about being of mixed heritage, and what it means to never truly fit in. The most powerful essays for me detail her trip to South Korea, teaching English on a Fullbright contract. Having visited South Korea just a couple summers before, I could understand the almost traumatic experience of facing your Asian heritage head on and feeling crushed by the culture that should (in your mind) accept you with open arms.


I’ve never seen romantic stationary in Korean. There must be some, I think to myself, and later paw through the notepads in my desk, the fresh packets sold at school supply shops. But the ones I can find are always in English, I see, or French or Latin. And suddenly it occurs to me that this is sad, but because these cards seem to be spoiling something about Korea…I don’t like the fact that, to me, these cards appear like lies imported from another culture, a cheap sentimentality that feeds off the educationally enforced separation of the sexes.

Though I have often accused Koreans of whitewashing the truth about themselves with ritualized politeness, with Joseph at Usok I suddenly do not find this much different from the romantic moves and singers America produces in huge volumes on a seemingly daily basis…Perhaps my students, seeing movies from my culture, buying stationary with my language, have been taught to believe this artificial sentimentality is all that really matters to us. And maybe that makes them sad, too.

10. Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen by Brenda Shoshanna, PhD

For the longest time (and still today), I wished I was Jewish. No joke; I always thought Hannukah was cooler than Christmas as a kid, and it wasn’t just the presents. For some reason, decorating a tree seemed silly – celebrating God’s miracles of oil extension by re-enacting it seemed more real. On my mission, I declared to my district leader and good friend that I would only marry a girl from the tribe of Judah. Sure enough, on news of my engagement, Wolfgramm asked me if I accomplished this goal. I had forgotten about that boast a long time ago, but eerily enough, my wife derived from the lineage of Judah.

On top of that, I’m Asian, and with that come a lot of Asian baggage, despite my American identity. I have a lot of attitudes and traditions my parents taught me stemming from Confucianism and Buddhism. In high school during my senior year, I took a World Religions class from Mr. Prufer, who was Zen Buddhist. During that critical year, I was very close to running away from home and joining a Buddhist monastery.

Fast forward to 2009, and I’m still a faithful, practicing Mormon, though much more mature in spirituality than I was five years ago as a senior in high school. At Sam Weller’s, this book catches my eye – a book about how to be a practicing  Ju-Bu (Jewish-Buddhist)? And if there is such a thing as a Ju-Bu, could there be a Mo-Ju-Bu? I set to find out.

In a period of my life where my religious practice seemed stale and stagnant, this book breathed new life into it. The author writes about her life experiences, of being raised Jewish and finding Buddhism and trying to reconcile her two belief systems into one. Sincerely honest without rationalization or scripture wresting, Brenda Shoshanna demonstrates President Hinckley’s request that all religions bring what’s good in theirs, and see if we can add on to it. Perhaps, my version of Mormonism is less meet-and-greets, funeral potatoes, and college ward prayer meetings, and more meditating and mitzvot observing.


He [my Zen master] was right, but questions still haunted me. As zazen deepened, I could not avoid the persistent questions that rose up within – I thought about my family, my cousins, parents, sister, brother. Am I abandoning you, I wondered? Have I left my Jewish roots behind? Am I running away from who I truly am? What about all those who died to uphold the Torah? At certain times I felt that doing deep zazen, I was fulfilling the true Torah, actualizing all the commandments. Other times, dressed in my Zen robes, I felt as though I was trespassing, violating my deeper self.

…One day I said to him, “I feel I should go home.”

“Where is your true home?”

I breathed deeply for a moment.

“Your true home. Before you were born! Eshin, calm down. You have not done wrong. You are not doing wrong here.”

“According to my people I must go home.”

“Then stop coming.”

“I can’t.”

“Then sit more deeply, to the very bottom of the well. Finally, when you are ripe, you will see that we are all One.”

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My Favorite Children, part one

I recently wrote about how I’m planning on leaving a good 90% of our library behind while we move to Washington. The place we’ll be staying at is interim and cramped for space, so a lot of our library must be packed up for good and stored until the Lord seems fit to reunite my wife and I with them.

I also recently wrote about how the decision process is like being forced to choose between your children, and as fitting, my wife has part of the library that is “definitely hers” while the rest are “his books.” Thus, I am forced to sift the wheat from the okay wheat from the tares, only to bring those books whose character doth excel above all others. Or something like that.

Well, while many people look at different indicators to discover more about someone (for Polonius and Perez Hilton, it’s clothes; for nutritionists, it’s what you eat), I am a firm believer that books reveal more about a person than anything else, and so here are the first half of the 10 books I new immediately I needed to keep:

1. The Holy Bible and triple combination (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price) –

Being a good, faithful Mormon boy, of course these four books top the list. Some may cry foul in combining these four volumes into one selection, but those who do obviously have never seen what many LDS members affectionately call “the quad.”

My particular volume is not a quadruple, but separated into two – The Bible and the rest of the Mormon canonical works combined into one; it’s easier to study cross references with both volumes instead of flipping back and forth with fingers in pages. My particular set is also the extra large print version, which I got during my mission for the extra wide margins for note-taking. The notes come in two layers – early-mission notes are inked with various colored pens, while late-mission (and post-mission) notes are scribbled in pencil, a habit I picked up from the mission president.


I still carry them to this day and they are my principle workbook for scripture study. They also carry silly notes my wife and I pass each other during sacrament meeting, one which details a cartoon of me throwing sharks with my wife’s version of herself rendered in stick figure form swooning, “So hawt!” I am not making this up.

2. The Book of Mormon, RLDS version, circa 1955 –

This is the closest thing I have to an heirloom and prized possession. Should I become rich and famous and robbed whilst a character of a popular crime show (such as Castle, wink wink Nathan Fillion), the object of desire by said robbers would be this tome. I picked up while browsing an antique shop in Blackwell, Oklahoma on my mission. At first glance, it was just a really old edition of The Book of Mormon, more than enough excuse to buy it. Upon further examination, I realized that Alma chapter 21 is a whopping 186 verses long, and that a paper pasted in the front cover had you writing to The Council of Twelve, The Auditorium, Independence, Missouri for more information. Turns out, this was an RLDS version, and this book became that much more precious.


As a bonus, included in the book was a wonderful Christian tract about how the barcode was the mark of the beast.

Apparently, Christians don't like barcodes for religious reasons

3. Digging to America by Anne Tyler –

This bittersweet novel captures all of the conflicting and intricate emotions of immigration in America. Two very different families meet at the airport, both waiting for their adopted Korean daughter. When they receive them at the same time, one family suggests an “Arrival Day,” celebrating the anniversary of the two Korean daughters entering their lives. Thus begins a story of acceptance and rejection, of inclusion and exclusion, full of laughs, cringe-worthy events, and the hilariously melancholy observations of an Iranian grandmother with a Korean grandchild, Maryam.


Lou was too busy talking to keep up with them. First he talked to Sami, on his other side – boring man-talk about jobs, followed by the high price of housing once he learned that Sami sold real estate. Then it was Maryam’s turn: how long had she been in this country? and did she like it?

Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine (unreasonable though it was) that maybe she didn’t always, instantly, come across as a foreigner. “Where are you from?” someone might ask just when she was priding herself on having navigated some particularly intricate and illogical piece of English. She longed to say, “From Baltimore. Why?” but lacked the nerve. Now she spoke so courteously that Lou could have had no inkling how she felt. “I’ve been here thirty-nine years,” she said, and, “Yes, of course. I love it.”

4. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Then We Came to the End has been described as the novel form of the television show The Office, Catch-22 about white collar office life, or the next great American novel for the 21st century. It details in lucid prose the antics of an advertising agency on the verge of recession. As the firm lets their employees go one by one, the paranoia increases and everyone learns how to cope (or not cope) with their crumbling lives as they realize how much each co-worker means to them – and how little they know about them. The book’s unique hallmark is its narrator – 1st person plural. Ferris’ novel sucks you in as you start to feel like one of the employees, whispering over the cubicles and gossiping by the water cooler about each character’s private and public lives. This book sports one of the best endings in the history of literature (really, dead serious, best ending I’ve ever read in my life) but also sports some pretty heavy language, so avoid if you’re not into that stuff.


Tom wanted to throw his computer against the window, but only if he could guarantee it would break the glass and land on the street below. He was under his desk removing cords. “that’s sixty-two stories, Tom,” Benny said. And Tom agreed it was a bad idea if he couldn’t break the glass. If glass didn’t break they would say Tom Mota couldn’t even f— up right – he didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of that, the bastards. We were the bastards he was referring to, in part. “But I don’t think it’ll break the glass,” said Benny. Tom stopped tooling around with his computer. “But I gotta do something,” he said, sitting back on his heels.

5.  A Treasury of Jewish Folklore edited by Nathan Ausubel

I picked up this gem in Seattle, during my honeymoon, at a small bookstore in Pike Place Market. The owner is a great guy who loves to talk about your purchases with great zeal and friendliness. I picked up this book for two reasons. One, it was old looking, and old books get me every single time. Two, it’s a collection of Jewish folklore! What more do you need?

I ended up lucking out since this book is actually really old – the fifth printing in November 1948 (the first printing was in June 1948), and according to my friend who went looking for a copy of his own on Amazon, has seen many a share of its editions and printings.

The first month or so, I would read a couple of pages and then read my favorite ones out loud to my wife; bless her Jewish-lineage heart, she tolerated my readings and would even pretend to laugh from time to time. I still read through this on a regular basis, and I will still read some of my favorite stories out loud to my beautiful wife.


A Jew was drowning in the Dnieper River. He cried for help. Two Czarist policemen ran up. When they saw it was a Jew, they said, “Let the Jew drown!”

When the man saw his strength was ebbing he shouted with all his might, “Down with the Czar!”

Hearing such seditious words, the policemen plunged in, pulled him out, and arrested him.


Filed under life stories

Drinking the tea (as opposed to the Kool-Aid)

“I came to love and admire the work of Puritan writers in the American colonies – work I had previously detested. I saw theme was something universal in all expressions of human culture, and a mature student would not pass something by as being not his cup of tea. It was the student writer’s job to drink the tea. Drink the tea, people.”

The above quote is by Gregory Maguire, the author of the bestseller book turned Broadway smash hit Wicked, speaking on his experiences as a graduate student in English. I related immediately, because I, too, hate Puritan work. I don’t especially like the Scarlet Letter. And as I thought about this, I remembered all the books that I didn’t particularly care for while taking literature classes in high school that are still considered classics despite my ample protests: The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Ethan Frome. So, in the spirit of being a student writer and realizing it’s my job to drink the tea, I am going to re-read these books and see how  they live up to my now more (hopefully) mature tastes in literature.


Filed under life stories, wordsmithing